In the midst of a pandemic that has caused fitness levels to plummet, a new study suggests that simply downloading a smartphone app for physical activity is not likely to lead to a significant increase in steps per day or minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity per day.

Writing in the first systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized control trials (i.e. the gold standard of research) specifically focused on the effectiveness of smartphone apps to increase objectively measured physical activity, the authors found that “such apps lead to a nonsignificant increase in objectively measured physical activity, though effectiveness appears greater in physical activity apps when used in the short term and when the apps target physical activity alone.”

black smartphone displaying error
Photo by Polina Zimmerman on

Five key takeaways for “Smartphone App Only” interventions:

  • Effectiveness tends to be higher in the short term
  • Effectiveness tends to be higher when the apps focus only on physical activity (and not, for example, a combination of physical activity and diet)
  • Evidence suggests a “nonsignificant” increase in steps/day
  • Evidence suggests a “nonsignificant” increase in daily minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity
  • The “nonsignificant” trends were consistent for both general adult populations and adult populations with specific health conditions

Why It Matters

Physical activity rates and fitness levels will likely be at an all-time low by the end of the COVID-19 pandemic. This study reinforces the belief that physical inactivity is one of the greatest public health challenges of the modern era: there is no cure, vaccine, pill, or basic smartphone app that will eliminate the crisis. Absolutely, fitness technology will be a part of the solution (thanks to the great work of the Fitness Industry Technology Council and others), and ever more powerful if connected to a group or community, but creating a sustainable lifestyle change almost always requires support and expertise that can’t be provided by a simple step counter or accelerometer.